Telco commissioner beats bottle but political demons remain

After nine months’ alcohol-related medical leave, the Commerce Commission’s telecommunications commissioner, Ross Patterson, is ready to return to his desk, where an unprecedented number of investigations await - but his path seems blocked.

On leave since September 19 last year, Dr Patterson (pictured) has now passed an independent medical test, NBR understands.

However, NBR also understands that neither Commerce Commission chairman Mark Berry (who is acting telecommunications commissioner) nor associate commerce minister Rodney Hide, who is responsible for the commission, want Dr Patterson back.

That being the case, it would fall on the shoulders of Commerce Minister Simon Power to adjudicate.

Labour communications and IT spokeswoman Clare Curran told the 10th annual Telecommunications and IT Summit (TelCon10), entering its second day in Auckland today, that the industry was looking forward to Mr Patterson’s return.

But it remains unclear when - or even if - the incumbent telecommunications commission will resume his duties.

Over the past month, NBR enquires to the Commerce Commission have been referred to commerce minister Simon Power, who in turn said that associate commerce minister Rodney Hide - whom earlier this year took charge of the commission.

NBR asked if persistent rumours that the minister had spoken to Mr Patterson were true. Mr Hide replied, simply “No.”

And asked whether he knew when Dr Patterson would return to work, Mr Hide again had a one-word answer: “No”. (While he has been loquacious on the super city, Mr Hide has been uncharacteristically quiet on his new charge; indeed, transfer of the commission from Mr Power to Mr Hide was only announced on an obscure section of the government’s website and only initially reported by NBR).

The (as yet unedited or corrected) transcript of a June 18 Commerce Committee meeting throws more light on events:

CURRAN: There’s been silence on the reinstatement of the telecommunications commissioner, which is an extraordinarily important position at this time. When will a decision be made, and why have you waited so long, and will ... Dr Patterson be reappointed or a new appointment made?

POWER: This is a decision that is being worked through as we speak. This is a very complex and difficult matter. I am determined to take a process that is fair and takes into account all parties’ needs. I anticipate being in a position to formalise arrangements in the next two or three weeks, everything going well with a tail wind, Clare.

CURRAN: Has Dr Patterson fulfilled the terms of his medical stand-down?

POWER: Recently, yes.

CURRAN: Was the stand-down for a limited period, and was he expected back in January?

POWER: The chair and former minister David Cunliffe will know that it was for a limited period, but to ensure all parties were happy with the outcome of the engagement with Dr Patterson, that matter has been ongoing for a bit longer than first anticipated.

Dr Patterson was appointed telecommunications commissioner in September 2007 - a key role in the Commerce Commission as it prepared to oversee Telecom’s operational separation, which began in March 2008.

While his predecessor had been based with the commission in Wellington, Dr Patterson moved the telecommunication commissioner’s office to Auckland, to be in more convenient travel reach of family in Sydney.

In September 2008, Dr Patterson voluntarily stood-down to seek treatment for what the commission described as an alcohol-related medical condition.

At the time, IT and Communications Minister David Cunliffe - who appointed Dr Patterson - said he strongly supported the commissioner, and hoped he would return as soon as possible.

In Dr Patterson’s absence, Dr Berry - who took over as Commerce Commission chairman from Paula Rebstock on April  1 - has been acting telecommunications commissioner.

Within 24 hours of her April departure, Dr Berry - perhaps in reaction to "fox in the hen house criticism" or simply for workload reasons, recalled Ms Rebstock to the commission, on an open-ended contract.

Ms Rebstock has sat on the commission’s telecommunications panel ever since.

However, as the panel tackles an unprecedented number of telecommunications issues, from sub-loop unbundling to mobile termination rates and roaming, a third commissioner, Anita Mazzoleni has been the body’s most public face telco issues.

At TelCon 10 yesterday, Ms Mazzoleni turned in another assured performance, remaining cool under fire.

A fortnight ago, Mr Hide told NBR that in Dr Patterson's absence, he was unaware of any backlog in the commission's investigation load.

Yesterday, the minister said he had no further comment on the matter.

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The internecine, bureaucratic mismanagement exhibited by this matter casts a dark and demeaning shadow over the Commission's procedures and, inevitably, the government's political maturity. It seems that the highly accomplished Dr Patterson has been fit and ready and expertly certified to return to full duties for months but the machinations of faceless rivals and unqualified critics have paralysed all dignified processes of justice. Surely it is high time that the Minister takes a striong initiative and puts Patterson back where he has unique contributions to make and puts his rivals back where they belong. Their Indecent gossip-mongering and self-seeking do nothing to get the show back on the road again.

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